Language is meant to provide meaning. And the word “disabled” does, it turns out, a mediocre job. Guest author Johnny Taylor helps us navigate the complexities of communication.
In my case, being disabled really is lame. That’s right, I’m unable to walk. Did you assume I meant “lame” in another way? Curious. I’m so very interested in the meaning of words but, more specifically, how I relate to their use. What does the all-encompassing and rather generic classification of “disabled” actually mean to me, a person with disability?
Now, I’m not bent on discouraging people from using the word “disabled.” It’s a handy word used to describe a situation. In fact, I use it to describe my situation: quadriplegia. Which dictates I use an electric wheelchair to be upright and live my life every given day. I care to think the word “disabled” fits me—it’s a convenient shorthand to describe my body. Using the word benefits me. But therein lies my problem: Is it complete? And so, is my use of the term really to my benefit?
As far as I can tell, the visibility of my disability usually says more to a person than I’m ever prepared to say for myself in those first few seconds of an initial encounter. And much more efficiently, too. Painfully so. I’m left with the distinct feeling that my first impression sticks with people longer, and with more meaning, than most folks who they meet.
I’m not saying my appearance shouldn’t play a role in how I’m interpreted. But, it’s another shortcut. Like our old friend “disabled.” Does my appearance accurately communicate the whole picture of me? Of course it doesn’t. I’m deeper than any perceptions of me based on my disability. As is the case with everyone beyond that first impression they make, disabled or not.
Point is, there’s a ton of assumption wrapped up in our ideas of “disabled.” Both based on the obvious, but the not so obvious, as well. As I said before, I’m a quadriplegic—I believe it’s evident upon first seeing me. But what about the things my appearance doesn’t say? For instance, quadriplegia doesn’t necessarily mean total loss of motor control in all four limbs. I have full sensation throughout my entire body, but diminished motor control in my arms and legs. Messages from my brain don’t get through my brain stem effectively enough for me to move about without a wheelchair or use my voice in a way many people can easily understand. It’s not more complicated than that, fortunately.
I bring this up only to suggest if people knew this about me, it might serve as a bridge to more easily relate to me. Not to suggest that if I couldn’t control or feel my limbs, I’d be any less relatable. It’s just harder to classify someone based on perceived differences when you realize they have much more in common with you than not. I’m not an aberration. I’m just a person trying my best to live a life. No more, no less. Much like you.
I get it. This stuff is tricky to talk about, let alone define. It’s a fine line we all have to walk, or in my case, roll. And we all have different experiences with disability which informs each of our perspectives. Talking about disability in general is so much more complicated than talking about a specific disability, unfortunately. “Disabled” can indicate anything from someone who prefers a keyboard to navigate the web, to anyone who uses an electric wheelchair to get around, to an individual who works with a speech synthesizer to communicate in public. Or all of the above: like me.
Classifying someone as “disabled” actually isn’t very precise.
Using that word says so much about an individual. Too much on the one hand, not enough on the other. When we characterize a hugely diverse group of people’s abilities with a single blanket descriptor, are we doing the people we’re communicating with, or those of us who are “disabled,” any favours?
If the goal is to provide the impression that “disabled” individuals are different than “normal” people or, more to the point, different than our expectations, it does that brilliantly. But that is a form of otherizing—it implies there’s a normal to begin with in the human experience. And that’s something else entirely.
Language is meant to provide meaning. And the word “disabled” does, it turns out, a mediocre job. So, I’d suggest that it’s up to all of us to bridge the gap that language leaves.
The next time you encounter a person who seems different than you, strike up a conversation. Learn about the person behind any all-encompassing assumptions—both good and bad. I bet you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes in your day. It always transforms mine when someone ventures past loaded prejudices and first impressions, and offers me a genuine connection.
Johnny Taylor is a disabled web worker. He works to keep web accessibility non-elite.